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dai sijie   Reminiscent of François Truffaut's classic The 400 Blows, filmmaker Dai Sijie's exquisite first novel, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, focuses on two young men sent away for "re-education" under the Maoist edicts of the Cultural Revolution. Branded "intellectuals" and of bourgeois backgrounds, the unnamed narrator and his best friend Luo arrive at the remote mountain village to perform hard labor. They find small freedoms from their dreary tasks in an alarm clock, a violin, films, and the friendship of a local girl known as the Little Seamstress. The inner lives of the three are irretrievably broken open with the thrilling discovery of a friend's concealed collection of forbidden Western literature. Through the translated works of such French authors as Dumas, Hugo, Romain Rolland, and particularly Balzac, refreshing new feelings of independence and ambition begin to gestate, creating fissures of hope in their oppressive world. In his film China, My Sorrow, Dai, himself a product of the "re-education" movement who left China for France in 1984, meditated on the ability of both performance and tai chi to bring peace to those in crisis. In Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, he further expands on this magical idea, lyrically capturing the power of literature to inspire change and to restore the spirit in the darkest of times.
 
V.S. Naipaul   Booker Prize-winner V.S. Naipaul once declared the novel "dead," thanks to innumerable writers who carelessly plug a lot of words into formulaic plots and blithely send the resulting "work" off to their editors. Seeking to escape this trap, Naipaul constantly strives to remake the idea of fiction and of novels with his intricate blend of, among other items, fictionalized autobiography, criticism, history, and satire. For his efforts, he is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest living writers of the English language. In his new book, Half a Life, Naipaul tells the story of Willie Somerset Chandran, a mixed-caste man who journeys from his homeland of India to university London to colonial Africa. In each land, he constructs a new self to match the world and people around him and lives lives not quite his own in places also not entirely his.
 
Alberto Manguel   Reading Pictures, A History of Love and Hate by Alberto Manguel, author of The History of Reading, is an accessible if scholarly collection of essays regarding 11 works of art, some more widely known than others. Manguel reads each work to explore the significance of visual clues both in the context of the social, political and aesthetic climate in which the works were introduced and in that of present day environments. In this essay about Peter Eissenman's Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, Manguel examines the relationship of a memorial as a manifestation of an event to its subject, its audience, their response to the event and their response to the manufactured artifact.
 
Haruki Murakami   What happens when disaster strikes in a place that most consider safe? Perhaps it is too soon to hear the survivors' accounts from the disastrous events of September 11, but Haruki Murakami's Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche provides first-hand reports from a very different, yet helpfully comparable, incident of terrorism. On March 20, 1995, members of the Aum religious cult released deadly sarin gas at points throughout the Tokyo subway system. In the following excerpt, a survivor details her confusion, frustration, thoughts on retribution, and desire to carry on with her life.
 
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